In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) serves as a guardian of public and environmental health. Among other things, this means the agency polices harmful substances like asbestos.
However, before the EPA can recommend regulations, it needs to base those rules on science. This means assessing the risk each controlled substance presents. In the case of asbestos, the EPA released a new risk assessment late last year, but a coalition of different watchdog groups have recently argued that report was deeply flawed.
The purpose of the asbestos risk assessment
As the EPA notes on its website, it conducts risk assessments to ensure that its work all starts from the best possible science. That means the EPA uses these studies as the foundation for its other work, which includes:
- Translating laws into rules the agency can enforce
- Allocating grant money to improve the public health and environment
- Directing and funding future studies
- Educating the public about different threats
In other words, the work the EPA does to safeguard health and property hinges upon good information. The more a study is flawed, the more likely the EPA may fail to draft and enforce the right rules. And the more it’s likely to mismanage its funds.
Four problems with the 2020 asbestos risk assessment
The EPA released its most recent asbestos risk assessment in December 2020. While it found significant human risks, several groups have argued the report failed to provide a complete picture of the problem. They have asked the Ninth District Appellate Court to review whether the report fulfils the EPA’s mandate.
According to these advocacy groups, the report is flawed because it:
- Focuses solely on chrysotile asbestos while ignoring the threats posed by other asbestos fibers
- Does not address the pre-existing, or “legacy,” uses of asbestos that require disposal
- Fails to consider all the health problems linked to asbestos
- Overlooks important information about asbestos importing, manufacturing and recycling
Taken together, these flaws suggest the EPA’s latest risk assessment may fall far short or land off-target with its efforts to safeguard the public. They may not support the types of actions the advocacy groups might like to see taken to protect the public from asbestos found in baby powders, crayons and beauty products. They may underplay the importance of proper disposal. They may steer lawmakers away from providing the funds needed to remove asbestos from aging buildings.
Good science makes a big difference
One key belief lies at the heart of the watchdog groups’ effort to challenge the EPA’s report. It is that good science makes a difference. Bad science can lead to faulty conclusions. Good science can illuminate a better path forward.
Tens of thousands of Americans suffer every year because too many people ignored the science of asbestos for too long. Those who suffer from mesothelioma, asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases didn’t need to suffer. Their diseases were all preventable. It is the EPA’s job to lead the charge in preventing these diseases. The public deserves a risk assessment that properly explores the threat.